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Lightning have grown up but haven’t yet grown old

John Romano | Tampa Bay is still built around speed and skill, but last season’s Stanley Cup run taught it the value of taking its foot off the gas.
Break out the pucks! The Lightning may be without Nikita Kucherov in the regular season and they may have developed a new-found respect for defense, but this team is still built around speed and offense.
Break out the pucks! The Lightning may be without Nikita Kucherov in the regular season and they may have developed a new-found respect for defense, but this team is still built around speed and offense. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Jan. 7
Updated Jan. 8

BRANDON — By now, you know their names well. You know the faces, the numbers, the games and the stories behind most of them.

Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman arrived as teenagers and have been here for more than a decade. Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat have been wearing Lightning uniforms for eight years apiece. The core of this hockey team has remained unchanged through injuries, free agency, labor strife and even a pandemic.

But in the days before they begin their defense of the 2020 Stanley Cup title, it is oddly worth asking:

Who are the Lightning?

For years, this team’s identity fit in an easily contained, if slightly abused, box. The Lightning were the flashy team, the highly skilled team, the one that could dominate regular seasons but couldn’t win enough big games in the spring. And they were a high-scoring bunch, the first franchise since the Wayne Gretzky-led Edmonton group in the 1980s to lead the NHL in goals for three consecutive seasons.

They’re mostly the same guys in 2021, but a memorable run through the playoffs has made it possible to look at Tampa Bay a little differently. It’s certainly not a defense-first, blue-collar team such as Columbus, but has its personality evolved? Is this the start of a new era?

“Our identity hasn’t changed,” said general manager Julien BriseBois. “Our identity is we skate fast, we play fast, we push the pace all over the ice. When we draft players, we still draft with that in mind. And, obviously, it’s not just skating fast, but having the puck skills to execute and maintain that pace while also limiting quality scoring chances for the opposition.”

That’s all true, and it all makes sense. Any roster with Stamkos and Brayden Point will still score goals in bunches. But is it reasonable — particularly with Nikita Kucherov on the long-term injured reserve list after hip surgery last week — to think the Lightning could lead the league in scoring again? And will the lessons from last season’s playoffs make the Lightning more mindful of the rewards of a more responsible approach to scoring?

“We don’t want to not score goals,” coach Jon Cooper said. “We scored a bunch of goals last year … and so you hope to keep that part of your game. I think an identity with a team develops. We went into the (postseason) bubble last year with all intents and purposes of playing better (defense) and doing the things we preach, but until you start doing it, until you find your groove, you don’t really know. And we really did find our groove.”

That groove, as it turned out, was being more mindful of all the less-glamorous responsibilities beyond scoring. They include defense, positioning, faceoffs, and being more protective of the puck and less flimsy with the penalties.

The result was that Tampa Bay’s scoring average dropped from 3.47 in the regular season to 3.08 in the postseason. Big whoop, you say. Goals are harder to come by in the playoffs. Yes, but Dallas, the Islanders and Colorado all saw their scoring averages increase in the bubble.

And the flip side is that Tampa Bay’s goals-against average dropped from 2.77 per game to 2.28. That means that while scoring fewer goals, the Lightning actually had a wider margin of victory per game (from 0.7 to 0.8) because their defense was so strong.

“We played, in the playoffs, the best defensive teams, and we beat them. Now we understand what it takes to win,” Palat said. “It’s been said we’ve got a lot of offensive players who can put up goals, but first of all you have to play good defense.”

So what is the result?

With their newfound devotion to defense, will the Lightning play a more conservative game in the regular season? With Kucherov out of the lineup, does that become a necessity?

“What I like is we kind of set a standard for ourselves last year, and a big part of that was playing more responsibly,” Cooper said. “And that meant we had to lower our turnovers. Which we did. We had to manage the puck better. Which we did. We had to excel on special teams. Which we did. So when you do that and you set a standard and you win, guys understand that’s what it’s going to take. Especially when you’re missing one of the top players in the world.

“And so our attention to detail without the puck is really going to have to be paramount. For us to have success, usually when you don’t have the puck, you’re playing defense, and that’s what we’re going to have to do to carry on from being in the bubble.”

None of this suggests the Lightning are about to batten down the hatches and turn into a defensive trapping team. As BriseBois pointed out, skating fast and attacking is built into this team’s DNA.

But over the years, the Lightning have also grown bigger and more physical. They’ve gone from being 16th in the NHL in goals allowed in 2016-17 to being a top-10 team on defense the past two seasons.

There’s no doubt this group still has the potential to dazzle every night, but now, maybe, it has the maturity to recognize that it isn’t necessary.

John Romano can be reached at jromano@tampabay.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.

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